Open Thread: The Best Notebooks

When we talked about the best pens a few weeks ago (which I’m still in the process of trying out — many of the ones mentioned by the readers were subsequently sent to me by Jet Pens, so thank you! — others I’ve bought myself) some of the readers noted that we should also talk about notebooks. This took me a wee bit by surprise, I realized, because I feel so strongly about my notebook choice — so I’m really curious to hear what the other ones that people love.

Mead Composition notebookMy favorite notebook is your simple, cheap, Mead Composition notebook, at least for use at my personal desk. I like how the pages stay together no matter what, and how the book can take a beating and still hold up. I’ve spilled coffee on these notebooks, doodled on them, ripped out pages, photocopied them — and they still hold up incredibly well.  I’ve used them for years to keep track of personal things — I still have the notebook containing my budget from back in my lean days, right out of college! — but when I switched jobs from a big firm to a small not-for-profit I rediscovered my love for this kind of notebook because I think it’s great for when you have multiple small projects going on and you just want everything in one place.  I tend to only have one notebook at a time — the front part of the book (at least the first page going forward) is for business stuff, and the last page going backwards is for personal things.  I’m also incredibly ADD when I get on phone calls, whether for business or personal matters, and I find that it helps me to focus if I’m “taking notes” during the call, even if it’s something as simple as arranging a furniture delivery.

I’ve used the Mead notebook for professional purposes as well — taking notes at some small meetings and big conferences — but I’m undecided on whether they look “professional” enough to actually be used for this purpose.  For example, I remember taking my battered Mead notebook with me to a big Style Coalition/Elle meeting last year and feeling like my notebook was somehow too shabby and out of place among all the sleek, lovely notebooks the other bloggers had.  To be honest, I would probably just grab a clean pad of paper the next time I had to go to such a meeting (if I knew there would be too many notes to take them on my phone).

Other systems I’ve used over the years:
– In college and law school (although I got a laptop by January of my 1L year), I preferred to use looseleaf paper, which I would eventually bind in one of those slim folders with binder clips in the middle(usually at the end of each day, but at least once a week).  I just carried around a clipboard full of about 50 sheets of loose papers, and when I finished a class or seminar move the pages I’d filled to the back of the clipboard.  This saved me from having to take notes for Class X in Class Y’s notebook (let alone notes for Club Z — the horror! can you imagine?) and also allowed me to start drafting homework assignments, letters, and even some creative writing attempts without impinging on anything else’s space.

– At the law firm, I found that I preferred to have one legal pad per case.  I would take notes from reading the papers and filings in the notepad, grab it to go with me to meetings, and file it with my other case notes and research.  This turned out to be helpful a few times when a major case would “die,” only to rear its ugly head a few months later (long after I’d expunged all thoughts of it from my head).  For a while I tried to adopt a system where I had a nice leather-bound “Trapper Keeper” kind of thing that I took with me to longer meetings (particularly handy because I could “stock it” with Post-It Notes, tape flags, business cards, and even lip gloss), but ultimately I just preferred the simple yellow legal pad system.

– For my personal diary or journal, I’ve always tried to buy pretty books that have meaning to me; they’re usually cloth or leather-bound.  I’ve bought them anywhere from museum shops to open-air markets to specialty stationery shops.  I like how they’re all different.

I’ve tried other brands and systems — such as keeping a Moleskine in my purse for on-the-fly notes — but I’m just never impressed with how they hold up, so I prefer to  take on-the-fly notes in my phone (such as during my recent fun with 5 sessions of a Lamaze class) usually either synced through my calendar or with my new “notes” application, B-Folders.  (I know a lot of readers sing the praises of Evernote, but I prefer to keep personal things out of the cloud if I can.)  Spiral bound notebooks I have completely forsaken — I hate the way the pages get harder to turn as you fill up the notebook, I hate the way the spiral doesn’t hold up (and frequently gets pokey in a mean, aggressive way), and I hate the way they don’t pack flat (and “dent” other papers, folders, and books) if you’re packing them away in boxes.

Readers, what are your favorite notebooks? How do you use them differently?


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  1. anonx1000 :

    I am sitting here reading these comments and wondering why it has never occurred to me in 5 years of practice to allot a separate legal pad per case. OMFG.

    My favorite legal pad is a white, college-ruled (HATE wide ruled) “evidence” pad with a hard back from Ampad. I discovered these while studying for the bar and they are my favorite. They are 3 hole punched and nicely perforated for easy tearing out. But now I want to buy lots and lots of some of these other pads out there…

    • Anonymous :

      Lol…me too! In just over 6 years of practice, it never occurred to me to alot a pad per case! But I will henceforth as it sounds like a good idea…

      • Is it just me or how do you actually do this? Do you put stickies with the case name to the side of each page of each notebook? I end up having so many yellow pads and then I forget which one goes with which case and then I end up with notes for a case spread across various yellow pads.

        • I used one pad at a time (rather than one per case), and tore out the relevant pages as I used them and put them in a case file (with the two hole punch at top). It never occurred to me to do anything else. Of course, my compulsive filing was key to making this work. If I was pressed for time, I’d paperclip the section of notes together and label it with a post-it for my secretary to file.

        • Write a label with a sharpie on the top part of the pad. For extra credit, make a label with that label maker that lives on your desk at all times.

        • Sometimes I label them at the top, but usually not since once I flip the top page over, I can’t see the label any more. Really what I do is keep them with the others papers I have in my file for that case/deal. So when it’s time to work on that project or that client calls or whatever, I just grab the pad out of the file. The files for the cases/deals I’m working on are all in a file holder on my desk. I don’t like to tear the notes out until the deal is done because I like being able to flip back through them and have them all together while I’m in meetings and on calls.

        • I’ve gotten out of the habit of this, which I’m mad at myself for, but I use hard-backed notebooks (mostly) and use a sharpie to label it. I also write it on the first page. All my notes are then together and, when I fill out a notebook, it goes in the case file

  2. I am completely OCD about paper and pens (office supplies generally), so I buy my own notepads. They have to be Tops Docket, narrow ruled, 8 1/2″ x 11″, three-hole punched, perforated at the top, and very hard-backed so they can stand on their own if I’m not writing at a desk. I go through phases between all yellow or all white. I tend to buy these online in packs of 12 at a time to try to get free shipping, because none of the local places (neither Office Depot, Office Max nor Staples) carries them in brick and mortar stores. I find it very difficult to have to write on something unruled or wide ruled. Gah!

    None of these stores carry Plastiklips either. Grr. Because I got addicted to Plastiklips at my last job (though not the mini ones — I hate those), I ended up ordering these for myself online as well. They’re made by Baumgartens, in Germany. !!!

  3. I am an architect and we are slightly insane about paper. I generally have two moleskin sketchbooks (blank, thicker paper), one the full size and one smaller. One or the other, usually the small one, lives in my purse at all times. The only one that ever suffered from the wear was about two years old at the time. I love the pocket inside. I also found a similarly sized notepad from Rhodia with a dot grid pattern, and I love it. I also have a government-issue ruled flop-flip notepad with wide lines and a line down the center that has unexpected appeal for jotting temporary notes down.

  4. I use something like the mead notebook but European – it is red, relatively small (3/4 size maybe) and with a grid pattern. I fold pages in 1/2 to plan my days – one side “to do” and one side “schedule” (with the date in the upper corner). I also use the pages to take notes in meetings, so that all I have to do is flip back to around the date. Love it.

  5. I have to use yellow college-lined legal pads – by firm doesn’t buy them, so I spring for my own. I’ve tried the one notepad per case but then I usually end up with like 50 notepads all over the place, so I just use one. Then about once a week or so I rip the pages out and stick it in the “notes” folder of each red rope.

  6. CPA2Stars :

    The like the Arc customizable notebook system from Staples. It’s a cheaper alternative to the Levenger Circa system. I use the Arc black leather notebook, but prefer the Levenger circa paper. They are much classier than a 3-ring notebook, but you have the same flexibility.

    Staples –
    Levenger –|level=2|pageid=1749

  7. My notebook of choice is found in the art section of most big box craft stores…blank, medium-sized, spiral-bound sketching notebooks. I work in corporate communications and am always brainstorming, so the blank sheet is the perfect canvas for scribbling notes, making lists or drawing (and my brain doesn’t get distracted by line width!) The paper is also thicker so I can write on both sides without the ink bleeding through. I only wish the notebooks had more stylish covers since I love fashionable office products, oh well.

    Love this topic, Kat!

  8. Sarah Carter :

    Levenger Circa notebooks in various sizes. Seriously – I am addicted. I have tried everything and I’ve been a Circa loyalist for three years.

    • Styleosophy :

      I use the Levenger Circa Junior and Letter notebooks also for all my personal notes.

      At work, I just use a steno pad. Small enough to walk around with, and it holds all notes I take while on the phone. I like having all my thoughts in one place.

  9. I curently have 2 favorites.

    One is a Cornell Note B5 Notebook with a layout that makes it easy to take notes using the Cornell notetaking method.

    My other favorite is the Kokuyo Campus A5 notebook with a Muji denim tag notebook cover.

  10. I have a multi-notebook system. At work I have a plain legal pad sitting on my desk right next to my mouse so I can scribble things down while on the phone or when I’m in the middle of something or when I just need to doodle during a really long conference call to keep from drifting away entirely. I normally try to scan this at points during the day to transfer anything important to my digital systems (a mix of outlook meetings/emails, evernote and things for mac.) I also have a medium sized moleskin to take to meetings because I think it’s a little nicer looking. Plus I *refuse* to take a laptop to meetings because it almost always distracts me (emails, IMs, tweets and the like.) And like the author, I find I focus more when I’m writing things down as I go. I always go for the softcover moleskin because I like the way it starts to wear in as I go. I also like the pocket in the back for stashing business cards. Again, when I get back to my desk I filter information I capture back into my digital systems which are easier to search and bring to mind later.

    For my personal life I always have a small, softcover moleskin on hand. It goes in my purse and when I come home it comes into the living room with me. I started this habit about 2 years ago when I was going through a painful breakup and I had all these snippets of things I was feeling or wanting to say to the person but trying to resist that temptation. I started writing it down. And I discovered that the simple act of writing something down made me feel like I’d moved it out of my head and I was free to think of something else. So long after I’d healed that particular wound I kept up the practice of having a notebook. Trying to remember my grocery list? Goes in the notebook. Trying to remember things I need to do? In the notebook. Worried about an awkward conversation I need to have with a friend? Draft in the notebook. Hear a line from a song I like? In the notebook. Cheesy thought? In the notebook. Someone made me mad? Yell at them in the notebook. Stressed about a big personal project – like a move or selling my car? Set down all the info and steps and notes in the notebook. I can’t live without it now. It helps my type-A, prone to anxiety, personality keep a hold of things and stops me from feeling overwhelmed. Everything I write down feels like a relief. Like I don’t have to constantly think about it anymore and I can free my brain up for other things.

    I saw the author wasn’t really into moleskin but I’m a diehard moleskin fan. I love the leather cover, I like the weight (not too heavy, but feels solid) I like the softcover to fold back and wear in. And recently they started these bright colored ones and they have the small size with only 80 or so pages that come in packs of 2 or 3 and they’re perfect for my purse. I used to use the 180 page one and keep it for about a year, I go through the 80 page ones faster but I carry it with me more because it fits into my smaller bags easier, like on weekends. I also found that I didn’t really need the long term record. I was using it so much just to get things down and out of my brain, and only went back to to-do or shopping lists and those date themselves pretty quickly so quickly going through smaller books and switching them out isn’t really an issue. Of course I save all of them in a little box in my desk :)

    Love this topic!

  11. I love the Second Nature recycled legal pads. The paper is high-quality stock and my favorite pen, the Pilot G2 Bold in black, writes beautifully & smoothly on it. I have a pen and paper fetish. :-)

  12. The Meade notebooks are sturdy. I have also spilled tea, coffee or water on them, dropped them and they survived. Love them.

  13. I wind up with too much paper to use 1 notebook per project, so I use 1 spiral bound steno pad at a time. Primarily for meeting notes – the project contract number and the date at the top of the page, anything I have to do gets a star.

    My project files are all color coded, 1 color per project and no duplicates while the projects are active.

    My own observation – I save the pink folders for when I need a guy to do something. For some reason, they hate pink folders on their desks.

  14. I’m obsessed with Clairefontaine notebooks. They are French and a bit more expensive than the average notebook, but you can get good deals ordering in bulk online. The paper quality is amazing, so you can use both sides. They come in ruled/French ruled/graph/blank and tons of sizes.

  15. I use hard bound moleskine, quad ruled. I keep all my random notes in it and start a new one when I fill it up. I prefer handwriting outlines and anythin with a more visual structure. More substantive notes, meeting notes, rough drafts, etc, I’ve been keeping on my iPad using Evernote, one notebook per project. Before this I often emailed notes to myself. If I might type it at some point I tend to just start by typing it.

    I have a huge collection of notebooks, many of which only have a few pages written in them….I stopped buying them a while ago! He moleskines are the only ones I fill up.

    I love Kat’s idea of business from the front and personal from the back – I may adopt that.

    I know this is another thread, but my favorite pens are pilot precise and the felt tip marker pens. I have moods where I prefer each :)

  16. I all the time used to study article in news papers but now as I am a user of web thus from now
    I am using net for articles, thanks to web.

  17. I love reading about what notebooks you’re using successfully! I’ve gained some useful tidbits from reading everyone’s comments, so thanks for sharing.

    I use one composition notebook for all of my meetings and a yellow 8 1/2 x 11 pad for writing down to dos as they come up (yellow sticks out on my desk so I can find the pad quickly) until I can get them on my calendar. My office uses Outlook and I take full advantage of my calendar to keep track of EVERYTHING (deadlines, calls to make, conference calls, personal appointments (marked private so others can see I have an appointment but not the details), meetings, travel, recurring tasks, delegated items, and more). I created categories and color code things like deadlines, calls/conference calls, travel, and private appointments so they stick out. Each Friday, I preview the next week so I know what my schedule looks like and what I can expect.

    I also have a steno pad on my desk. I draw about a 1″ line to create a margin on the left on each page, which I use to write dates/times of meetings once I get them scheduled or a check mark next to a note for something I’ve completed. I write the date each day on the right and take notes for the day (e.g. if someone stops by to give me an update on a project, the boss provides info). Then I skip a few lines and write the next day’s date; repeat. One steno pad lasts the whole year and creates a great record.

    I keep to these three notebooks, which are all provided by my office, for simplicity. I know what I’m looking for and where to find it.

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